Gregory Harrington

#101 Wednesdays - NFPA 101 and the board and care fire problem

Blog Post created by Gregory Harrington Employee on Mar 8, 2017

A fire at an assisted living facility in the early morning hours of last Friday serves as a stark reminder that we still have work to do. Three occupants died (two initially, and a third in the hospital on Monday), and three were critically injured, when fire struck the Kozy Kottage assisted living facility in West Baltimore, MD. A seventh occupant was rescued and refused treatment. According to media reports, the eight-bed facility was housed in a 2,500 sq-ft house built in 1924 and converted to a board and care occupancy in 2008. The cause of the fire is currently under investigation.

 

It’s too soon to know what caused these fatalities, but one thing is certain: something went wrong. If there are lessons to be learned from this fire, NFPA will do what it can to uncover them to hopefully prevent such occurrences from occurring in the future.

 

Fire fatalities in board and care facilities are nothing new. The Life Safety Code Handbook provides a summary of multiple-death (defined as three or more deaths) fires in these occupancies dating back to 1990:

 

Commentary Table 32/33.1 Residential Board and Care Multiple-Death Fires

YEAR

LOCATION

FATALITIES

1990

Georgia

4

1990

Texas

4

1990

Bessemer, AL1

4

1990

Wisconsin

3

1991

Colorado Springs, CO1

10

1992

Detroit, MI1

10

1993

Texas

3

1994

Alabama

6

1994

Broward County, FL1

6

1995

Mississauga, Ontario1

8

1995

Oregon

4

1995

California

3

1995

Michigan

3

1996

Connecticut

3

1996

California

3

1996

Laurinberg, NC1

8

1996

Shelby County, TN1

4

1996

Ste. Genevieve, Quebec1

7

1996

Pennsylvania

4

1997

Harveys Lake, PA1

10

1998

Arlington, WA1

8

2000

Pennsylvania

3

2003

California

4

2004

Pennsylvania

3

2004

Tennessee

5

2006

Missouri

11

2009

Wells, NY

4

2011

Marina, CA

5

2012

San Antonio, TX

4

1NFPA fire investigation report.

Source: NFPA, Fire Incident Data Organization (FIDO).

 

The list is long and ugly. The 1990s were really bad, with 115 of the 154 deaths reported above. The 2000s significantly improved with 30 fatalities. The 2010s started with 9 deaths through 2013; we’ll be updating the table for the 2018 edition of the Handbook.

 

Some of the lessons learned from these fires have been incorporated into NFPA 101. For example, when the board and care provisions were written in the 1980s, the requirements for a facility were based on the facility’s evacuation capability, which refers to the occupants’ ability to evacuate, as a group, in the event of a fire. Evacuation capability was classified as prompt, slow, or impractical. As evacuation capability decreased, requirements for life safety features increased – makes sense. The problem with this approach, however, is a facility’s evacuation capability isn’t constant; it’s dynamic, and can change over the life of the building. A facility might have a prompt evacuation capability today, but as the residents age-in-place, it could degrade to slow, or even impractical. A change in evacuation capability can result in needed changes to the building. In many cases, this wasn’t happening. NFPA responded by revising the Code to eliminate the evacuation capability-based criteria for new construction in the 2003 edition. All new board and care facilities are now required to be provided with life safety features that assume the evacuation capability is impractical. The existing board and care provisions have maintained the evacuation capability criteria so as to not unnecessarily put existing facilities out of compliance with the adoption of a new edition. It is critical, however, that existing facilities ensure that the protection in place is appropriate for the evacuation capability of their occupants.

 

As another example, the Wells, NY deaths in 2009 cited above were caused when a fire started in an attached, screened-in porch, traveled up an exterior wall, and got into the unprotected attic space. The building was protected by a residential sprinkler system, but the attic was unprotected, as permitted by the residential sprinkler installation standards. In response to this fire, additional attic protection requirements were added for the 2012 edition. Options include heat detection in the attic, attic sprinklers, non-combustible or limited-combustible construction, and the use of fire-retardant treated wood.

 

I will continue to follow the fire in Baltimore and will keep the Technical Committee on Board and Care Facilities apprised of any lessons learned. If there are gaps in the code, I have a responsibility to do whatever I can to get them filled. But it’s important to remember, NFPA staff members are the only people in the world who can’t vote on revisions to our codes and standards. If changes are needed, it’s up to you, NFPA’s stakeholders, to participate in the process.

 

Thanks for reading. Until next time, stay safe.

 

Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I’d love to hear your suggestions!

 

Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “Free access to the 2015 edition of NFPA 101.”

 

Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH

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